Back when the PlayStation 2 was the world's most popular game console, the original Xbox was struggling to gain a post-Halo audience and the GameCube was a cute diversion with a couple decent titles, I trolled gaming message boards. I was so sure that anyone who bought anything other than a PS2 was out of their mind that I set on the most immature mission in history: to inform the masses, proselytize the word as handed down by Hirai-san, and ridicule those who were wasting their time with The Wind Waker.
Those who were active gamers at the time probably read that paragraph and are now either annoyed or cracking a wry smile in understanding. The latter are the ones who played Ico. Those who weren't gamers at the time can insert their own products into the mix for context.
Anyway, yes, I was a troll. I would plop myself into Halo discussions and ask silly questions about Master Chief's personal life, then excuse myself with, "Sorry, gotta go play SOCOM!"
It was, in retrospect, a horrible thing to do, and I probably made some kids' nights pretty miserable. But truth is that I was amused. Really amused. It felt just like when I would torture my sisters by interrupting phone calls by picking up another extension. A thick mix of glee, fear, anxiety and jealousy stirred together and tickled my evil side as they would shout, "Josh, get off the line!"
It's in all of us. It's something children do. It's something adults do when we can get away with it.
It's even something animals do.
I adopted a male kitten over the holidays and, while he is the cutest thing since, well, kittens, he is a master troll. He'll sleep all day, cuddle in the evenings when I get home from work and just as I am about to slip into a silky slumber, he'll run across my head and disappear under the bed until I begin to doze just to do it all over again.
Rather than strangle the furry monster with a gentle squeeze (he's small), I Googled the trolling kitten phenomenon only to learn that what Sparky is doing is totally normal. "Cats are nocturnal," the experts say. "Play with him until he's tired," others suggest. "Close the door," the smart ones conclude.
It's 11 PM right now as I write this, and Sparky is passed out behind me. He's certainly not acting nocturnal, and I guarantee he'll be shredding toilet paper the moment I plop into bed. I tried playing with him until he was virtually unable to stand for a couple nights. But within 10 minutes, he was back to his old self, face running as I tried to catch some shut-eye. As for the door, well, I live in a loft. Pity me.
The point is that we're all trolls. We get off on others' misery. The Germans even have a word for it: schadenfreude.
And, to be honest, it's kind of cute when we troll those we love. Whether it's a little brother embarrassing his big sister or a kitten trying to say, "I am your new nightmare, adore me!" trolling is a weird way of showing love.
But trolling turns poisonous when we do it to others online. We don't know them, and we're looking for that same satisfaction from people who don't love us. The intention is attention, but the result is misery and annoyance, and that's when trolling becomes antisocial.
Back when I was bugging Xbox fans, I found some joy in the attention I received, but that quickly soured as they learned to troll me back. What started as a gentle poke turned into creepy name-calling and potentially dangerous threats. Within weeks I realized that what I was doing wasn't productive or healthy.
So here's the thing: Unless you're a kitten or a really cute little brother, if you're thinking of trolling someone, you're not going to get the kind of attention you think you will. Your trollee isn't going to forgive you and feed you in the morning when you meow. Nor is she going to simply pass it off and say, "That was my stupid brother. Ignore him."
No, you'll just get a taste of your own medicine, and it's pretty bitter.
The next time you're about to troll, go ahead and type it out. But before you click "submit," read it out loud to yourself.
See how annoying you sound?
Joshua Fruhlinger is the former Editorial Director for Engadget and current contributor to both Engadget and the Wall Street Journal. You can find him on Twitter at @fruhlinger.